What a school suit shouldn't do

May 19, 1992

The goal of state political and education leaders should be clear: equal educational opportunity for all of Maryland's students.

No public official will admit to standing for unequal opportunity. Yet that's what clearly exists.

Well-off suburban school systems are providing substantially more than financially-strapped urban and rural systems. While state aid designed to help poor districts makes up some of the difference, the gap remains large.

So, advocates for Baltimore and poor rural counties -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- are talking about a lawsuit to challenge the state's system of financing education.

State officials are angered at the possibility of such a suit, including Governor Schaefer, who -- as Mayor Schaefer -- backed such a suit filed in 1979. (In 1983, the state Court of Appeals rejected the challenge, saying the state constitution does not require equal funding.)

Mr. Schaefer and some key legislative leaders say a suit is not necessary now because real progress has been made as the state has changed its school-aid formula since the last court case.

Here is how things have changed: In the 1981-82 school year (the most recent figures available the day the Court of Appeals RTC rendered its decision), Baltimore City spent $2,564 per pupil and Montgomery County spent $3,771 -- or 47 percent more than Baltimore. Last year, Baltimore City's spending was up to $4,947, but Montgomery's had jumped to $7,590 -- 53 percent more than Baltimore.

A suit may not be the best tactic for solving the problem. It didn't work last time, and it cost the city more than $1 million to try. And it made some suburban legislators less willing to support aid to urban and rural schools.

But a suit this time, or mere talk of a suit, should not be used by the governor or by suburban legislators -- as some have threatened -- as an excuse to refuse to look at further adjustments to the state aid formula until the case is resolved, perhaps five years from now.

Also, a suit, or the potential of a suit, should not be used by educators as an excuse for postponing needed reforms. Under an energetic new superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey, city schools should continue to plan for doing better with the resources at hand. And the state's promising school reform effort, now in its early stages, should be followed to completion. That effort couples rigorous new tests with programs, currently in the planning stages, to help schools which are performing badly.

On all sides, there may be a strong temptation to wait for the suit to play itself out, or to indulge in political games in the interim. Maryland's children deserve better.

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